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Feds: Greatest Risk for Summer Power Grid Problems Is in Texas

By: Brantley Hargrove |

It’s that time of year again, when the feds single out Texas’ precariously thin power reserves. Even California — a state not known for electrical reliability — is projected to experience fewer problems with its power grid as the summer heat drives residents to their thermostats.

A reserve margin is the buffer between the available supply of electricity and peak demand. Certain targets are established to account for things like heat waves and unexpected power plant outages. Texas’ margin is slightly anemic. “The reserve margin estimates exceed the target in every region, except in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas region (ERCOT), which is most of Texas,” the U.S. Energy Information Administration said in its assessment Thursday.

This map shows just what an outlier Texas is when it comes to having surplus juice.

This appraisal of the Texas is much less optimistic than ERCOT’s own. The grid operator isn’t predicting blazing summer temperatures, though it has said it may ask Texans to turn their thermostats up a few degrees during the dog days.

Texas’ once robust reserve margins have been eroded over the years by persistently low natural gas prices, which most often sets the price of electricity. And because power generation in Texas is deregulated, producers earn their profits solely through electricity sales. Of course, lagging sales haven’t inspired them to build power plants to keep pace with the state’s growing population.

ERCOT says natural gas plants are being constructed as we speak and should be added to the grid’s expected generation for 2014. Until then, conservation and demand response — paying industrial customers not to use electricity — will have to get us by.